Remarks by Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr. at the Asia Society, Washington, DC, August 2011
Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today. It is an honor to be in the company of so many distinguished experts on the United States’ relations with East Asia. I am delighted to have so many members of the very successful Philippine diaspora join us.
I would like to focus my remarks on the current state of U.S.-Philippine relations. To put it succinctly: The ties between our countries are as strong as ever, and we are working together as partners to further our many shared interests.
Like so many others, I was deeply impressed by the Philippine people’s overwhelming sense that the 2010 elections, produced a legitimate, democratic outcome. And I also have been impressed by President Aquino’s strong desire to live up to the people’s expectations that he will deliver on his promise of clean governance, accountability for corruption, and a better life for all Filipinos.
We are aligning ourselves closely with such Philippine government aspirations. To do so, we started this year with our first-ever Bilateral Strategic Dialogue. In January, decision-makers from Washington flew to the Philippines and met with their counterparts over several days to discuss the broad range of issues on which we cooperate and explore new areas for cooperation.
Together we discussed issues of mutual interest, we prioritized activities, and we set goals for ourselves. We discussed economic issues, security issues, and environmental issues. We shared views on regional and global developments. And we agreed to meet again to measure our progress, assess changing circumstances, and look for additional opportunities to work together.
Here are our priorities:
First: eliminating constraints to economic growth. The Philippines is one of four countries designated by the White House as a “Partnership for Growth” country. The goal of this effort is to support programs in the Philippines that tackle constraints that keep the country from achieving broad-based economic growth. We and the Philippine government have agreed to focus on two of these constraints: weak governance and constrained fiscal space. In collaboration with the Philippine government and after consulting with a wide range of stakeholders from the public and private sectors, including civil society, we are developing an action plan that builds upon already successful and promising programs.
Good governance is essential for achieving the kind of inclusive economic growth that will boost employment prospects for Filipinos. The government’s Philippine Development Plan for 2011 through 2016 aims to tackle this issue head on. The Partnership for Growth will support the implementation of key elements of this plan.
We also are seeking to help the Philippine government to raise revenues more efficiently. Last year we signed a 434 million dollar Millennium Challenge Corporation compact. A considerable portion of the MCC’s efforts will focus on strengthening the Department of Finance’s revenue-collection programs, which will in turn provide the resource base that the Philippine government needs.
A second major priority is the provision of opportunities. President Aquino has laid out ambitious programs to address poverty, improve education, and expand health care – all programs that provide opportunities for ordinary Filipinos. We support such programs through the Peace Corps and USAID, of course, but let me talk about one specific area in which I am personally very involved.
This is the battle against the heinous crime of trafficking in persons. The abhorrent practice of human trafficking has transformed a great many Filipinos – men, women, and children – into nothing short of modern-day slaves. But President Aquino has given this issue his attention, and I am delighted to tell you there has been good progress. We support the strong partnership between civil society and government agencies that has worked to prevent victimization, rescue those who have been abused, apprehend perpetrators, and convict the guilty. Much remains to be done, but the U.S. government has recognized Philippine progress, as documented in this year’s Trafficking in Persons report.
The third priority I want to focus on is enhancing security: President Aquino has set some very clear security goals, and we are committed, as an ally as well as a friend of the Philippines, to providing our support.
I realize that there has been a lot of speculation about the way that the United States might react in the event of some sort of conflict between China and the Philippines. Please allow me to leave this sort of speculation to others, because I have found it difficult and at times counterproductive to grapple with hypothetical scenarios. Let me be clear about the existing circumstances.
The United States is a treaty ally and a longstanding friend and partner of the Philippines. We have a unique relationship, one with a strong cultural and historical foundation. Millions of Americans trace their roots to the Philippines and still have family members there. Our Mutual Defense Treaty both reflects and enhances our close ties, and I expect both countries will continue working together to protect and advance our shared security interests. No one should doubt the United States’ commitment to the Philippines.
Of course, the Philippines’ security concerns have been primarily internal, not external. The country continues to struggle with insurgency and terrorism, but we have seen meaningful progress. Just last week President Aquino met with leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to try and add new energy to that peace track, a promising initiative.
The outlook for his government’s talks with the New People’s Army is less clear. Compared to the M-I-L-F peace process, the talks with the communists have not been as productive. Nevertheless, the Aquino administration has shown a desire to bring about a negotiated end to the insurgency. And although the United States government continues to designate the New People’s Army as a terrorist organization, we do hope the Philippine government can succeed in resolving this conflict.
There are some organizations that are truly incapable of negotiations, however. In the Philippines, these include the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network. The Philippine security forces have ardently kept up their fight against these terrorists. The Philippine security forces regularly confront the ASG, and Philippine soldiers and police officers have been killed or wounded in these engagements. It is a sacrifice we should all bear in mind.
The United States has continued to play a very successful role in Central Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. At the invitation of the government, we are supporting the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ counter-terrorism effort with advice and assistance. I should emphasize that United States forces do not and will not engage in combat operations in the Philippines.
Our traditional military-to-military cooperation allows our respective soldiers to study together, train together, and work together effectively. This is most visible during disaster response, when the very able AFP allows U.S. forces to be partners in rescue support. But it is also important in the world of global peacekeeping, where the Philippines is a respected and appreciated troop contributor.
As a final point connected to security issues, let me mention the United States’ longstanding advocacy for human rights and specifically the concerns we have had about extra-judicial killings. It is difficult to calculate the numbers of such killings with certainty, but it is clear that, over the past years, some members of the security forces have been involved in politically-motivated murders. The U.S. Congress has withheld three million dollars in Foreign Military Financing from the Philippines, pending progress toward accountability regarding these killings.
Although the pace of killings has declined, progress toward convicting culprits remains slow. I very much hope for greater accountability, and I am confident that the top Philippine policymakers share this hope. President Aquino, whose father was the victim of the country’s most infamous extra-judicial killing, has spoken publicly on the issue, and Justice Secretary Leila De Lima has shown herself to be a long-time, ardent advocate for human rights.
While the United States has expressed concern about extra-judicial killings, we are working in partnership with Filipinos to enhance the rule of law in the Philippines. With over 10 million dollars in our law enforcement budgets for this fiscal year, we are continuing to work with the Philippine National Police so its service to citizens becomes even more exemplary. Our cooperation with prosecutors helps them build stronger cases, so trials can be more efficient. And while it’s not exactly CSI, we are able to provide some forensic equipment and training to help police identify criminals scientifically.
To sum up, the three main pillars of our partnership with the Philippines – eliminating constraints, providing opportunities, enhancing security – are mutually reinforcing. Each one of our programs aligns carefully with the government’s stated priorities and commitments. Every cooperative engagement is designed to reinforce President Aquino’s vision of a Philippines that reaches its full promise. Every contribution we make reinforces investments the Government of the Philippines is making towards a safer, more prosperous, more equitable and more sustainable future.
Even as I oversee these programs, I bear in mind the bigger picture and the remarkable dynamics and trends in the Philippines at this time. I have been in the Philippines for just over one year, and I have been privileged to meet people who bring extraordinary energy and creativity to their efforts, whether they are businesspeople, artisans, farmers, or fisherfolk. I have seen men and women in the security forces who risk their lives to protect far-flung communities and bring peace to neighborhoods long plagued by violence. And I detect among these Filipinos a sense of hope that they have a government that is making earnest efforts to carry out genuine reforms, to end a climate of impunity, to fight against corruption, and to provide the common people with the means to achieve their ambitions.
I consider it an ideal honor to be able to represent the United States in the Philippines. I sense the enormous good will that so many Filipinos retain for the United States, and I continually strive to be the type of partner who can work productively and respectfully with Filipinos as they build a society that meets 21st Century standards for good governance, that provides ASEAN with leadership, and that plays an important role in our interconnected, global economy.
Thank you very much for your attention. I would welcome an opportunity to hear your views and to address whatever questions you may have.